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PSC asks electric companies for right-of-way trimming program

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Public Service Commission on Wednesday ordered all West Virginia electric companies to propose how to help keep trees and other vegetation from affecting rights-of-way, in an effort meant to lessen the impact of future severe storms on customers.  

Within six months, each company has been asked to submit a petition that proposes its own comprehensive rights-of-way tree-trimming program, which must cover all distribution and transmission lines. Each company also is expected to tell the PSC how long it would take to accomplish what they proposed in their tree-trimming program.

For instance, it might take one company two years to properly maintain all rights-of-way, while it might take another company five years. 

Utilities also are required to indicate how the program will be coordinated with other entities -- such as landline telephone companies -- that have property, lines or other equipment in the rights-of-way or attached to utility poles.

Finally, utilities must explain how the program will be paid for, and how much it will cost, because "increasing the frequency of tree trimming will have associated costs and a direct rate impact on utility customers," according to the order.

Commissioners acknowledge that it is likely that both ratepayers and utility companies "will pay more in the future."

Wednesday's order closed the July 20, 2012, investigation the PSC launched to evaluate West Virginia utilities' preparedness for, and response to, the devastating windstorms that swept through the state last summer.

At its peak, more than 680,000 West Virginians lost power because of the June 29 derecho windstorm and subsequent storms. Some utility customers remained without power and water for nearly two weeks after the initial storm.

In the report, the commissioners said the higher upfront costs of trimming should "be offset by reduced outages, lower customer impact, and less disruption from future storms. It is clear from this investigation that sufficient funding for right-of-way maintenance should not be sacrificed in the interest of keeping customer rates as low as possible."

Commissioners want responses from Appalachian Power, Wheeling Power, Monongahela Power, Potomac Edison, Harrison Rural Electrification Association, the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, Black Diamond Power, the cities of New Martinsville and Philippi, West Virginia American Water, Beckley Water and Frontier Communications.

In its storm reports, First Energy estimated restoration costs associated with the derecho alone at $110 million, while AEP estimated $62 million in restoration costs and Frontier estimated $5.8 million.

The PSC has not yet been informed of the restoration costs associated with superstorm Sandy.

In the order, the commission also required the utilities to mention in their storm reports any new plans for how they would prepare for future extreme weather events.

In response to the PSC's July investigation, several utilities have already answered questions about how they would better respond to severe weather outages.  

American Electric Power, parent company to Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, plans to consider calling on nontraditional employees -- such as retirees -- to perform restoration roles, among a number of other improvements.

First Energy, parent company of Mon Power and Potomac Edison, said it would add an additional staging site to the existing four sites for the "provision of materials and meals to restoration workers" and also would establish a network of retailers to distribute ice and water to the hardest-hit areas.

Frontier said it would increase security for generators, prioritize the 911 center sites and enhance network visibility.

West Virginia American Water considered a number of changes, including creating contracts with fuel suppliers to provide fuel for generators, vehicles and equipment during emergencies.

The PSC said much of what it heard from the public since its investigation began -- both at hearings and in written comments filed with the commission -- focused on the capability of right-of-way maintenance along electric and telephone utility distribution lines.

The public challenged utilities to "perform right-of-way tree trimming and bush control more frequently and thoroughly," commissioners said.

The responsibility to adequately maintain rights-of-way applies to both electricity and telephone utilities, despite the commission requiring that only electric companies propose programs.

In its order, the PSC recognized that even attentive trimming of trees and brush within the rights-of-way will not fully protect the distribution lines from being damaged by tall trees in isolated areas.

Several factors combine to make future storm outages a certainty in West Virginia, the PSC said. Those include the remote locations of many distribution lines, geography of the land and abundant vegetation along narrow rights-of-way.

"Distribution poles were set by men with shovels using mules and horses to haul poles," while chosen routes were often "stretched up and down steep hillsides on narrow private rights-of-way," the order stated. "The lines in those hard-to-trim areas remain in use today and ... are at greater risk from trees falling from outside the right-of-way."

Alternatives such as replacing off-roadway lines with new, longer lines and burying distribution lines are "expensive solutions" that "would require utilities to incur the costs ... [and] all of those costs would be passed through to ratepayers," according to the order.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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